Friday, December 30, 2011

Resolutions--and Woody

Thanks for the yoga Cheryl. It was just right for this gray rainy next-to-the-end-of-the-year day.

And getting toward the end of the year puts me in mind of resolutions. A friend of a Facebook friend posted a list of resolutions from Woody Guthrie's journal. It's almost too much like looking over his shoulder, but not so "too much" that I don't want to share a few.

8. Write a song a day.
13. Read lots [of] good books.
19. Keep hoping machine running.
20. Dream good.

I'm definitely signing on for read lots of good books. I realized this week I haven't been reading enough. I've let other jobs, other pursuits, steal time from reading.

And the hoping machine. It's time to tune it up. And then there's the walking and the writing real letters to people I care about, and maybe leaving room in each week for surprise.

As we wait for more light, or more snow, or 2012 what's on your list?

New Year's Yoga for Writers

Good morning, and welcome. Let’s breathe deeply and begin to clear our minds. Focus on your breath and the energy it brings to your body and your writing.

As we try to clear our minds at this time of year, it is common to be assaulted by would’ve-could’ve-should’ve’s. The stories we would’ve started, if only…the times we could’ve written, then didn’t…the journals we should’ve kept, but... If any such ideas flit through your mind, don’t hold on to them, but don’t fight them either. Just collect them all and put them on a shelf in your mind.

Feel your breath move all the way into your belly. In and out. Find a place of stillness and acceptance inside yourself.

Now, into your mind, invite thoughts of last year’s writing accomplishments. The manuscripts revised…the characters sketched with clarity…the risks taken to share your work with others. The big and small. The public and private. Acknowledge each act as its own achievement in the larger process of writing.

Take a deep inhale and hold that breath.

As writers, we set our own goals. Then we often measure our accomplishments by how they match up to those goals—particularly goals of publication. Yet we pursue these goals within a world that is not completely within our control.

On your next exhale, let go of any connection between the intrinsic worth of your writing process and publication. Let go of any judgments based on your writing not measuring up.

Fill yourself with breath again and celebrate what did happen over the past year, rather than what did not. Accept the light and the dark within ourselves, the good habits and the bad. Accept the light and the dark in the external world. Know that light and dark will always exist, and neither can do so without the other.

Now visualize the writer you’d like to be in the coming year. You might bring some of those would’ve-could’ve-should’ve’s off the shelf and transform them into intentions. Or you might not. Focus on your process as a writer, which is within your control. Recognize the divine spark inside that connects us all, while making each writer’s voice unique. Feel strong and focused. Find that place within yourself that has both stillness and energy. Dwell in that place of doing and dreams.

The light in my writing salutes the light in your writing.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Writer's Marinade

Combine olive oil, fresh cilantro, sea salt, the juice of two limes and one orange (and anything else you're risky enough to try) to a fresh piece of Mahi-Mahi, grouper, conch, or giant prawns. A marinade will morph any blase' fresh catch into the unexpected. The secret? Time. Let all the flavors blend, soak through, until the entree' you'd imagined tenderizes, holds the heat, and eventually pops.

One of my favorite students had once told me that he'd "marinate" on the ideas we had discussed for his research paper on sex trafficking. Boy, did his use of that word strike me.

A writer must marinate, too.

Sure, we all believe in the ol' BIC method. But the time will come when you must marinate in the world around you. That's right. Marinate. Unpeel yourself from that zebra-print chair. Push away from the turquoise desk. Now lock away that manuscript. Let the snow crunch under your faux-fur trimmed boots. Breathe in the smell of burning firewood and toasted cashews from the nearby street vendors. Laugh. Take off to Paris (or to some other place, far, far away). Toast your BFF with a flute of champagne. Cause a scandal...or five. Laugh. Toast and laugh together all night. Listen to your knock-off Yve St. Laurent brushed-suede cerulean heels clack across the cobblestone streets. Belt out country music songs into your hairbrush. Laugh.

Repeat for many nights.

The best marinades take time. Laugh while you marinate. Trust me. Always remember to laugh.

This marinade will change you. And it will change your manuscript when you return to it (after you clear Customs and all). You'll see what you couldn't before--those changes you know should be made. Rushing hurts the WIP. And it will hurt you too. A writer requires time. We all need a marinade.

What's in your marinade?

Bonne nuit, mes amis!

Friday, December 23, 2011

What do You Read on Christmas Eve?

One of my favorite traditions is our Christmas Eve family read-a-thon. We snuggle under a blanket (this year we have a fireplace!), eat cookies (those not designated for Santa), and read a stack of classics.

The playlist includes: Brett Helquist’s illustrated version of A Christmas Carol, Martin Waddell’s Room for a Little One and a sampling from the many lovely illustrated versions of The Night Before Christmas, The Nutcracker and the Christmas story itself. Most of these books we’ve been reading since Thanksgiving. But we always save the “Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus,” chapter from Little House on the Prairie for Christmas Eve. That’s the one where the creek is so flooded that Santa can’t get his team (mules, not flying reindeer) across, but a good-hearted neighbor just happened to see Santa while picking up supplies in Independence, MO, and then fords the swollen creek to bring Christmas to the Ingalls’ lonely log cabin. Mary and Laura are beside-themselves with excitement over each receiving a tin cup and a candy cane in their stocking (teary sniff).

At our house, these books and their kin appear in December, just as we put away the books about fall leaves, pilgrims and pumpkins. We also have seasonal books for Halloween, Easter, spring, summer and July 4th. The non-holiday-themed, snowy stories come out in January as the holiday ones tuck in. Each book feels like a lost friend when it comes out of storage and averages about eight readings during its special time of year. My children are four years apart in age, so I’d estimate each book will stay on the playlist at least 6 years. That’s at least 48 readings per book. It’s a beautiful life being a beautiful picture book!

What do you read on Christmas Eve?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bits & Pieces

I'm back and classically jet-lagged. So don't expect much, but I thought I'd check in. There will be a reward at the end, a gift from Chris Heppermann.

We were on the move a lot while we were away and I didn't write much; that's unusual for me. As you know, I'm a daily writer and most days write badly then shrug it off. My feeling is something will come along if I keep putting words down. Almost any words. Almost in any order. I like to, as they say, use the instrument.

I found that I missed being surrounded by the things in my studio, especially the poetry books lying all over the place. I tend to put them face down on the carpet and when the spines aren't broken from use they resemble the tents of an encampment dedicated to language.

I didn't have that on the train. I had schedules and guide books and a smattering of Italian to try to remember. I'm not complaining. This is just reportage. We were on the road with amiable friends who knew a lot more about Europe than we did. Easy-peezy.

Glad to be back, though. Bruce Chatwin I'm not.

Now here's a poem thanks to Chris who found it on Ted Kooser's excellent site. It's by Mark Jarman I think and if not Chris will set us all straight in a comment box.

After Disappointment

To lie in your child’s bed when she is gone

Is calming as anything I know. To fall

Asleep, her books arranged above your head,

Is to admit that you have never been

So tired, so enchanted by the spell

Of your grown body. To feel small instead

Of blocking out the light, to feel alone,

Not knowing what you should or shouldn’t feel,

Is to find out, no matter what you’ve said

About the cramped escapes and obstacles

You plan and face and have to call the world,

That there remain these places, occupied

By children, yours if lucky, like the girl

Who finds you here and lies down by your side.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Quilts and stories

This is a story to go with Claire's story about taking a chance, or seizing an opportunity.

In December of 2002 I saw the "Quilts of Gee's Bend" exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York City. I was so moved by the quilts that I stood in line to see the exhibit on two consecutive days. These quilts were made by women who lived in a remote and poor section of Alabama. Gee's Bend was featured in a New York Times Magazine article in 1937 detailing tenant farming.

The women worked in the fields all day, but as they worked, they thought about the quilts they worked on at night, how they might arrange the pieces in the most satisfying way.

They made the quilts partly to keep their families warm in the drafty homes they inhabited. The women did not think they were making art, but they were. We know it now. The quilts have traveled the country and been shown in various museums. The quilters have been compared to other modern artists, such as Paul Klee or Henri Matisse.

The takeaway from the first part of the story is that art will out. Even when much of life is taken up by the hard physical labor of farming, the need to create, to make something beautiful, will not be denied.

The second part of the story: I thought about writing about these quilts in a picture book but thought maybe it was not my story to tell. So I let that thought slide. But the story has been told. In 2008 Patricia McKissack published a picture book about Gee's Bend-- Stitchin' and Pullin' .

In 2010 Irene Latham published Leaving Gee's Bend, a historical novel for middle grade readers. This year we have Belle, the Last Mule of Gee's Bend. by Calvin Alexander Ramsey. This book tells the story, not of the quilts, but of the two Gee's Bend mules that pulled Martin Luther King's casket in the funeral procession. And it manages to get in quite a bit of history, too.

I guess the takeaway from the second part of the story is a reminder to take the chance and write about what we love. I'm not sure if the story of the Gee's Bend quilts ever was my story to tell and I'm glad it has been told, even if not by me. But once in a while, I do feel a whiff of wistfulness ...

I still love the quilts and the story of the quilters--and am bearing down harder now on the stories that I want to tell.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

For Joy - What Writing Gift Are You Celebrating This Season?

The writing life includes many lonely days of uncertainty. Staring at the screen, unsure of the worth of our words. Therefore, we especially need to learn how to celebrate, to cherish the small and great successes in our writing lives.

Last month I posted about two writing contests and Mellissa asked, "When do you know if you are ready to submit your work?" Sometimes you just know you need to take the next step. The Spokane Youth Symphony sponsored a contest last summer, looking for unpublished children's stories to be performed along with their music. At the last minute, I did something I haven't done in years. I submitted a new project I am co-writing to the contest. We won. The brave and talented conductor loved our manuscript and wanted to bring it alive through music. Last month eight local girls performed sections of our story while the youth symphony played songs from around the world.

But earlier in the week the dress rehearsal had been a disaster. The conductor was not pleased. I went home, wondering, why did I ever think this was a good idea?

The girls practiced all week. That November Sunday afternoon they and the youth orchestra rocked the house, earning a standing ovation. The photo shows us on stage for the curtain call. Never has a literary event surprised and delighted me so. I had doubted, but the performers and musicians had brought our story to life, and improved it through the collaboration and rehearsal process.

Our story is now being considered by an editor and I have great hopes that it will be a book some day. But no matter what, I have that afternoon of joy to remember on those dark times in my writing life.

What writing experience do you have to celebrate this year? Have you finished a draft of a manuscript? A semester at Hamline? A great rejection letter? Pop open the champagne - now.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Poetry Challenge - Let's Hear You!

We moved to Connecticut this summer because my husband joined the faculty at a boarding school called Choate Rosemary Hall. Which means we now live in a house connected to a dorm with 15 high school junior boys. Which means that every now and then students ask me for help with their essays during study hours. Which is fun.

For the last two nights I went to the school’s Poetry Out Loud contest, which is part of a national program to encourage young people to memorize and recite poetry. We’re amidst the final days before winter break, and the events competed with basketball drills, orchestra rehearsal, play practice and the like. So although the recitations were open to the public, I was the only audience member who was neither participant nor judge. (That’s right, I’m the new literary geek on campus!) Happily, the finalists will recite at a full school assembly later this year.

It was wonderful to watch the students take the stage, breathe deeply, and deliver the spirit of a poem through their demeanor and tone. We heard works by Naomi Shihab Nye, Emily Dickenson, Al Young, Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, and others. Some students giggled sheepishly after their performance, others high-fived their friends, and I wonder if any truly knew what a brave and beautiful act they had done.

As writers, we know that poetry is meant to be read aloud, with its sounds and rhythms physically resonating. Committing to learn a poem’s words and meanings by heart and internalizing its cadence is an even more powerful way to cultivate our love of language and enrich our own voices.

On the way home, I wondered what poems I could recite from memory: The King’s Breakfast and some others by A.A. Milne, plus a solid playlist of poems about things like escalators and drinking fountains and toasters and leaves. It’s nice to have the right words at your fingertips when you’re waiting for the toast to pop. Still, I’ll make it a new goal to broaden my repertoire.

What poems can you recite by heart? Or come reasonably close?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Re-incarnating Musicals - Act II

This is a follow-up to intriguing Jackie’s post. I’m a fan of musicals, although I recognize they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. A friend in college once said, “Doesn’t all that singing drive you nuts? I just want them to get on with the story.” In the best musicals, the songs are getting on with the story and I’m a sucker for all that intense character development, or the building plot scene with a chorus of thousands, combined with the emotional tug of music. There’s probably a correlation here with tearing up at country music songs when I’m alone in the car. (Or is that TMI?)

Thinking about that fixed pole of music that Jackie referred to led me to Wikipedia for:

Original songlist for On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
Overture, Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here!, Ring Out the Bells, Tosy and Cosh, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, On the S.S. Bernard Cohn, At the Hellrakers, Don't Tamper with My Sister, She Wasn't You, Melinda, When I'm Being Born Again, What Did I Have That I Don't Have, Wait Till We're Sixty-Five, Come Back to Me, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Reprise)

2011 Reincarnation List
Overture, Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here!, She Isn't You, Open Your Eyes, Wait 'Til We're 65, You're All the World To Me, Who Is There Among Us Who Knows, On the S.S. Bernard Cohn, Love With All The Trimmings, Melinda, Entre Acte, Ev'ry Night at Seven, Too Late Now, When I'm Being Born Again, He Wasn't You, What Did I Have That I Don't Have, Come Back to Me, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever

Looks like some songs were used as is, others deleted, switched around in order, and a few were brought in from the musical film Royal Wedding. Interesting to contemplate how one song could provide intense character development for two different characters in different stories. It reinforces the duality of details in making characters simultaneously unique and universal.

I’d love to see the new show!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Revising and "re-incarnating"

I was stacking up some old New York Times recently, planning to send them to the recycle bin and one reached out and grabbed me. I noticed a story from November 27, "Switched at Rebirth."

It's an account of the re-imagining of the Sixties musical "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." The director and playwright who are working on it call it more than a revival. And the article states that: "...the original script, characterizations, sets and choreography have been scrapped as reference points." So it seems like what is left is the music and lyrics...maybe... I'm not sure.

But what struck me was the notion of keeping a set of songs and inventing a whole new kind of story to go with them. And I wondered if that might be the beginning of a fun exercise for writers--take characters we're familiar with, our own or from history or folktales and give them a different setting, different motivation, but keep one part. Keep the magic goose that lays the golden eggs but make the giant a nice guy, beset by this kid who keeps dropping by.

I'm putting it on my list for some day when I have time just to mess around.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Serendipity in Nonfiction

Jackie asked a while back if there was a key idea that resonated from the NCTE Orbis Pictus panel on nonfiction writing…for me it was the importance of serendipity.

When writing fiction, we talk about a writer getting out of his or her own way to let a story or character take its own lead. Nonfiction isn’t exactly the same because at the end of the day, your story is beholden to the facts. Yet there’s a lot of wiggle room for serendipity to shine a spotlight on what might become a story priority.

Authors Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan knew they wanted to write a book about revered modern sculptor Isamo Noguchi, but they also knew they didn’t want to write a soup-to-nuts biography. They went to the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, NY, to see what ideas would spark. There they learned of Noguchi’s 40-year collaboration with Martha Graham, during which he designed 20 sets for her ballets. A short film and display in the museum spoke to them and they knew they had found the heart of their book, Appalachian Spring: A Ballet for Martha.

Michael O. Tunnell just happened to hear retired Col. Gail Halvorsen speak at a church about how a small act of kindness grew into a fondly celebrated initiative to bring joy to Berlin children in the aftermath of WWII. In 1948, Halvorsen was a pilot airlifting humanitarian supplies into West Berlin. After noticing how much joy two sticks of gum gave to German children near the airport, Halvorsen convinced his fellow soldiers to pool their candy rations to add to the air drops. Soon the U.S. Air Force formalized the effort. Tunnell wasn’t necessarily looking for a book topic when Halvorsen began speaking. But before Halverson finished, the seed was planted for Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift’s “Chocolate Pilot”.

Fiction or nonfiction, you never know when or where a story will grab you and where it might lead.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Ending with a Quote from a Carol Shields' Story

I was helping out a friend who's doing work-for-hire. She had a desk piled high with first-draft manuscripts and just needed someone to read quickly and give her an idea of what needed to be done. She had a lot at 20-25 pages and a few novels.

It's always the same, isn't it? The openings are sluggish, the characters flat, the dialogue stiff, the pace either glacial or warp speed. The writing wasn't bad, it was just early in the game. I could see glimmers of jewels buried in the snow but only glimmers. No publisher would want to get his hand that cold feeling around in there.

My early drafts are that way, aren't yours? There's that first chapter that usually gets thrown out. Those ancillary characters rubbed out, their bodies hidden in the cellar. The thick, red line through sentences like this: "And then Ben, flinty eyes flashing crazily, ripped the parking ticket from the attractive meter maid's swollen hands as, pulsing with rage, he careened down the placid streets to confront his stern father who never really understood him."

Prizes and praise separate us. Envy enters stage left wearing a long green gown. Where we are bonded is in our bungling. That's when we feel "the million invisible filaments of connection, trivial or profound, that bind us to one another and to the small planet we call home."

Happy holidays.

P.S. I'm out of the country Dec. 8-20, but the new poem (December's) is up on the website now ( and early next week there'll be a link to a HUNGER MOUNTAIN piece I wrote. In case you miss me.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Unleashing the Power of Social Media

True confessions. I'm a dinosaur as far as social media goes. I can break out into a cold sweat just thinking about doing a Facebook update or signing up for Twitter. But I just did. I signed up for Twitter to at least reserve my name for the future. Because two weeks ago, I played to my strong suit, as in learning through a presentation, rather than on my own at home. I attended an excellent SCBWI workshop called "Unleashing the Power of Social Media" given by Greg Pincus, a former screen writer, now middle grade novelist, who specializes in guiding children's writers through the maze of new media choices.

For three hours, I made myself stay open-minded and listen to how to use social media options. And now I am not as stressed about it. I appreciated how Greg kept saying, "Did I mention these platforms do no good if you are not actually writing?" Yes.

Greg's key points:

1. Plan a goal for what you want to accomplish by using social media
2. Take advantage of tools that filter your information intake and help manage time (Google Reader and Alerts, TweetDeck)
3. Connect. Comment, update your own status, add to others' conversations.

I am not ready to deal with number two. I am still working on number one, but I know it is the key. Number three is the most doable, in the sense that I understand now that used efficiently, social media truly can be a wonderful to stay connected with other writers, learn about trends in publishing, even deepen one's knowledge of craft. It is not real writing. It is easier than deep revision. But I believe that understanding it better has helped inform my choices.

Next semester when I am not posting regularly on this blog, I will try to use that time to follow and comment on three other blogs. I have already been asked to post for Women's History month in March. This I can do.

I have figured out that one of my hesitancies on Facebook is that I am not supportive of others, as in clicking the like button or commenting on their good news. I hesitate to post my own good news because it feels self-serving when I don't support others.

What are you strengths in social media? How has it helped your writing career? Or not?